Fresh ginger: A chat with comedian Kathleen Madigan 

The stand-up celeb headlines the Palladium this Friday.

When I dialed Kathleen Madigan's number a few Tuesdays back, I could barely keep my phone steady. My only previous interaction with a celebrity consisted of passing Mario Batali in Garden of Eden in New York ten years ago. I saw him, averted my eyes and kept walking.

Madigan isn't just a celebrity. She's made numerous appearances on all the late-night talk shows. Leno's called her one of America's funniest female comics and Ron White lauds her as being one of the best comics alive. Those are some mighty superlatives.

Maybe she wouldn't answer, I thought as the phone rang. And then, she didn't answer. My relief lasted a few seconds. I couldn't concede to failure on my first interview that wasn't with my friends about their bands.

After emailing her publicist and finding out Kathleen overslept, we rescheduled the interview for that Thursday. When I called again, I wasn't nervous anymore. Yeah, she's had her own comedy specials on HBO and Comedy Central. She's hosted shows on Sirius Radio and went unchallenged on Last Comic Standing. But she also oversleeps, just like I do. She's human. And when she answered my call, I found out just how funny and easy to talk to she really is.

CL: Can you tell me a little about your upcoming show? How is it different from Gone Madigan or some of your other shows?

KM: Well, it's almost completely different because I'm doing another special on May 4th so what I'm doing now is all new from Gone Madigan. I usually stay within the same subjects because that's what interests me, but it's all different material.

Some of those subjects, I know you talk a lot about your family but you also do more topical subjects as well, so is that what you're talking about?

Exactly.

When possible you throw in events that are more local to the area where you're playing. How do you pick those items?

I pick up the paper to see what's going on but it just depends on the city. Some cities I've been going to my whole life and I know their history. Detroit is a city that fascinates me because the actual city of Detroit goes through so many crazy things you can't even believe they're real. Nobody outside of Detroit would know about it or care, but when I go there, it's a chance to talk about it.

Are you well received there when you're talking about how bad things are?

Oh, they know, and the jokes I'm doing, you wouldn't know them unless you really cared enough to read their papers, so I think they feel like I'm not just making fun of the cliché stuff, I'm actually going a level beyond that where it's really, I do know what I'm talking about so they believe that and then they think, okay, it's like making fun of your own family versus making fun of someone else's family.

Have you ever performed in Tampa Bay before?

Over the years, tons of times. There's an improv there. I like a lot of the clubs. One, it's probably still there, Side Splitters. Before I did theaters, I did all the clubs for 20 years so yeah, I've been there a lot.

In Gone Madigan, you mention that you don't have to write jokes, you call up your father and he inadvertently gives you a bunch of material, so did your father have any influence on your pursuit of comedy?

Not really. Everyone in my family is pretty funny so it's just how my family is. I guess you don't really think about it until other people comment, but I would say no. He's good to tease but not on stand-up.

Did he have anything else he wanted you to do instead, or did he say he'd support you no matter what?

I don't know if he had anything else in mind, but the good thing is, I have six siblings, and when there's that many kids, no one's really paying attention to anything, so we never had any pressure to go do or be anything specific. We had to go to college or we had to go get a job, but no, they didn't seem to care one way or the other.

Aside from talking to your family, then how else do you get your jokes? What is your writing process like? Obviously, you turn to the newspapers and the news, but do you sit down at a desk?

I never sit down at a desk and write jokes. I just live my life and read and go do stuff and funny stuff happens all the time, I just think some people just don't look at it that way. I look at it that when and then I say it on stage. Stuff flies into my head and I write it down usually — like a word on a piece of paper and I'll find it later in my purse and go, “Oh yeah, that.”

You've been on television and radio and you do your live performances. How are those similar and different? Do you prefer performing live?

Live is always a lot more fun. There's the energy. The problem with TV is people are so distracted by the fact that they're at the Letterman Show or the Tonight Show with Jay Leno that they're not fully paying attention like they would be at a theater where there's nothing else going on. In a TV studio, there're lights and people running around and it's very bright and it just doesn't feel comfortable. It's kind of uptight. That's why when I did Gone Madigan, I said I wanted it as dark as possible, I wanted it to feel like a club or a theater, not like a TV broadcast.

In a past interview, you described your comedic style as “Midwest logic with sarcasm mixed with resignation.” Is this still true, since you've now moved to L.A.?

I've been out here for 20 years, but I'm never even here. I'm in the Midwest and the South and the East Coast more than I'm even here, but no, it's remained exactly the same. So have the topics. So it never changed. [Laughs.] I don't know if that's good or bad.

Well, I'm originally from PA and I now live in Tampa, so when you said Midwest logic I wasn't really sure what that meant. Could you explain it?

I really can't explain it. It's weird. I can just tell when people are from the Midwest. They just get to the point quicker. Give me the bottom line. It's simple — not as in stupid, but simple as in, can you just take all the fluff out of it and tell me exactly what you mean.

You have a background in journalism. That's how you started out, what you studied in school. Do you have any desire or intention to write a book yourself?

No. No, I would never want to write a book. I've seen my friend Lewis Black do it, and it's a grueling process and no, no, no, no. [Laughs.] No.

This interview was scheduled for 1. Is this early for you? Are you on the road now?

Well, it's actually 7 a.m. here.

Oh, I didn't know if you were going to be in L.A.

Yeah. It's early, but it's okay. I got up.

I appreciate you talking then. I know 7 a.m. is really early, for me anyway. What's a typical day on tour like?

It's mostly travel. It's not very exciting. Get up, go to the airport, get on a plane, check into the hotel, go over my notes, go do sound check around 6:30, do the show at 8 and then done at 10. Repeat it the next day. When you're working the clubs, you're in a city for longer, for maybe a few days, so I kind of miss that, but for the most part, I say, we don't get paid to tell jokes, we get paid to travel, because that's what we spend most of our lives doing.

I read that you don't listen to a lot of comedy albums but you do listen to music. You've mentioned Florence and the Machine a couple of times. Who else do you listen to, or is that even a part of your day to day?

I like Mumford and Sons. Lewis and I did the comedy portion of Bonnaroo — not this past summer, but the summer before that, and it's not that I even particularly latch onto people. I just like hearing new people. The radio plays the same 25 people over and over whether we like them or not. Even on the cable channel called Adult Alternative, they play weird people—I shouldn't say they're weird, they're just people you wouldn't hear. There's a Canadian woman, Serena Ryder. Well, I never would have known who that was except for this this music channel on my TV. Because it's not like real radio where there's all this money involved and craziness and you just hear the same 25 songs or people. It's so hard to find different music, so I prefer doing that. I’ve sat around and listened to comedy albums if they're my friends, but I wouldn't go get an old Bill Cosby album. That's what I do for a living; I don't need to do it when I'm off.

So then do you ever go to the smaller clubs or the clubs you started out in to go and see who's out there beginning their careers now? Do you ever go to comedy clubs on your time off to see what else is out there or who's new?

I always end up in a club one way or another. Now whether I actually go into the showroom or just sit at the bar and have a drink, that's two different things. I use a lot of the younger comics as my opening acts and then they tell me what's going on, so I know what's going on, for the most part.

Kathleen Madigan will be performing Friday, Feb. 8, 8 p.m., at The Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. $39-$59. mypalladium.org.

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